Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 8 | Summary



The sun sets as Dante, Virgil, and Sordello continue to look down over the valley. Below, a single soul leads the other penitents in "Te lucis ante terminum" (literally "To you, before the end of light"), a traditional hymn for the end of the day. As they sing, a pair of angels with blunted fiery swords descend and take up their perches on either side of the valley. Their job, Sordello explains, is to guard against "the serpent who'll soon pass this way." Seeing Dante's fright at this remark, Sordello suggests going down to talk with the princely souls.

As usual, Dante is soon noticed by the spirits of the dead, who are curious about his origin and purpose in Purgatory. He first meets the noted magistrate Nino Visconti (d. 1296), whom he is relieved to see among the saved. Nino is saddened by the rapidity with which his widow remarried (to a son of a rival clan, no less), but he takes solace in the prayers of his daughter Giovanna. The serpent appears and is somewhat anticlimactically driven off by the angels. Finally, Dante is introduced to the spirit of the Northern Italian nobleman Conrad II Malaspina (d. 1294). He assures Conrad of the great reputation which the Malaspina family still enjoys in Europe.


Like many of their counterparts farther up the mountain, the princes in the valley retain a strong trace of their earthly personalities. All of them are there originally because they were too preoccupied with their roles as earthly rulers and insufficiently attentive to spiritual matters. A hint of these misplaced priorities comes through in Dante's dialogues with the princes. Both Nino and Conrad, for example, are still interested in their legacies back on earth and anxious about the material success of their descendants. This makes them more interesting for Dante to talk to, but it also suggests they have a long way to go in their process of purification.

The angel episode partway through the canto reinforces the vale's standing as a kind of mini-Eden. (The actual Garden of Eden, or Earthly Paradise, is at the top of the mountain and is described in Cantos 27–33 of Purgatory.). Like their remote ancestors Adam and Eve, the princes live in a beautiful environment where nature seems to have been embellished by God's own hand. The serpent is reminiscent of the one in Genesis, who tempts Eve to eat the apple and thus precipitates the entire history of human sin. In that story, once Adam and Eve are expelled, an angel with a flaming sword stands watch to prevent them from returning.

Here, however, the imagery is inverted. For one thing the serpent never makes it near the princes, who are divinely protected. Angels with swords protect the residents of the vale against the encroachment of the serpent, rather than guarding the vale against mortals. In fact, since God is so firmly in charge of Purgatory, the whole scene is more like a play put on for the princes' benefit than a genuine moral threat.

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